E-books have been around for decades, but only become easy to disseminate with the widespread availability of the Internet in the 1990s. However, another development was required to unlock their potential: a killer device, the Kindle. Once Amazon opened up their digital self-publishing platform, all the pieces were in place for writers to strike out on their own. But what has this meant for readers?
Most of the chatter in the publishing world centers on what all these changes mean for literary agents, publishers, booksellers, and writers. Each new set of statistics is debated, often quite passionately, as everyone tries to figure out where the e-book juggernaut is headed.
A lot of people seem to forget that there are only two essential components of the equation: writers and readers. Without readers, we couldn’t make a living. And without writers, they would have no books. Everything else is just window dressing.
All of the other players (agents, editors, publishers, distributors, retailers) can add value to the equation, but they are not essential. They aren’t necessary. I could publish my own work and sell it on my site. Readers could buy it and read it. Nothing else is required.
I choose to give a percentage to retailers because they can bring me more readers. And if I was to ever sign a publishing deal, or seek out an agent, I would view it through that same prism: how many (more) readers can you get me?
Amongst writers, a lot of the focus is on royalty rates, publishing contracts, advances, and sales numbers. We argue about whether self-publishing is a viable path, whether we could have greater exposure with a publishing deal, or if we should continue to deal with agents.
There is less talk about what this revolution has meant for readers. One simple point has been left out of all the arguments: if readers didn’t like indie books, they wouldn’t keep buying them, and indie writers would all fade into obscurity and return to the gates of Big Publishing with their cap in their hand.
But readers keep buying indie books in greater numbers. A year ago you could count the number of indie writers doing well on one hand. Now, I could probably name fifty off the top of my head. They’re just the ones I know of, and I know plenty more who are on the way.
Why are readers attracted to indie books? Price is the obvious answer. There are plenty of great indie books out there for under $5, and most cost a lot less. But it’s not the only answer. In fact, I would argue that diversity of selection is just as important.
When I was growing up, I loved to wander through bookstores. Each one had its own quirks, its own personality, and a completely different selection of books. Looking back, they probably had the same books, more or less, but they chose to push different titles, so the ones I would see on the tables or in the displays were radically different.
When did bookstores all start looking the same? When did the books that were being pushed become homogenized? I can’t remember exactly, but I do know there was a point when I started ignoring the racks and the tables and just dived into the “spine out” bookshelves, hoping to find something a little different. And I also know that over the years, my purchasing decisions became a lot easier as there were less and less books that interested me.
If you talk to other readers, one of their biggest complaints is that so many books are the same. Publishers just seem to chase one fad after the next, hoping to ride the sales wave of the latest bestseller. And because it takes them so long to publish a book, they have to guess what the fad will be in a year or two’s time and often get it very badly wrong.
Indies move fast. They can chase a trend when it’s hot and drop it like a stone when the market is sated. But more importantly, they don’t have to chase trends at all. They can write whatever they like. Non-writers can’t understand how liberating that is: knowing you can write whatever you like and publish it whenever you like.
In the past writers were restricted by what their agent or editor thought would sell. They were steered away from Horror for years, laughed at if they suggested a Western, and disabused of any notions of penning short stories or novellas. But it turns out there is a market for all that stuff.
I would go further: it turns out there is a market for anything. Welcome to the age of the micro-niche! If you want to read a book about space-faring dragons written in iambic pentameter, it’s probably out there. If you have written a time-travel romance about a Nebraskan widow and the scurvy-riddled pirate who captures her heart, there are readers for that too.
Writers can write whatever they want. And, more importantly, readers can read whatever they want. That’s the real revolution.
David Gaughran is the author of If You Go Into The Woods, Transfection, and Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. You can catch him at http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com